• Added info on Jimmy Ford, thanks to Volker Houghton. • Extended and corrected the post on Happy Harold Thaxton (long overdue), thanks to everyone who sent in memories and information! • Added information to the Jim Murray post, provided by Mike Doyle, Dennis Rogers, and Marty Scarbrough. • Expanded the information on Charlie Dial found in the Little Shoe post.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Blankenship Brothers on Bluegrass

Blankenship Brothers with the Sundown Playboys - Lonesome Old Jail (Bluegrass 45-816), 1959

In the past years, I have been digging deep into Arkansas' country and rock'n'roll music history. Though, before the Natural State came to my attention and became my specialty, the state of Indiana was near the mark. Numerous live stage shows were broadcast from the state during the 1940s and 1950s, countless small independent labels existed during the 1950s and 1960s and Indianapolis alone was home to so many bands, artists, labels, and clubs. It was a thriving scene but a topic that is rather unexplored with so many interesting singers and bands. One of those artists were Dennis and Floyd, the Blankenship Brothers, whose legacy was kept alive by collectors and lovers of "hickabilly" or rockabilly hick music.

Before we dig deeper into their story, it is better to mention that there were several acts by the name of the Blankenship Brothers or Family. An old-time family band known as the Blankenship Family recorded for Victor in the early 1930s. There was another brother act, Jess and "Gonie" Blankenship were another old-time duo, performing around Beckley, West Virginia, and appearing on the city's WJLS radio in the late 1930s. There was possibly even a third act that went by that name - more about this issue later, though.

Brothers Dennis and Floyd Blankenship's family hailed originally from the Tennessee-Kentucky border region but both made their home in Indiana by the late 1950s. Dennis was the older brother, born Garland Dennis Blankenship on November 18, 1923. His place of birth is obviously disputed, as his obituary mentions Macon County, Tennessee, as his birthplace, while official records mention Allen, Kentucky. However, six years later, brother Floyd C. was born on April 9, 1929, in Lafayette, Macon County, Tennessee. Their parents Thomas Stone "Tom" and Allie Lee (Jent) Blankenship had at least seven children and looking at their birthplaces, it seems that the family moved back and forth between adjacent counties Allen, Kentucky, and Macon, Tennessee. Father Tom's family were longtime residents of Macon County, at least since the early 18th century, but it was Tom's grandfather Joel Blankenship who married Ellen Grey from Allen, Kentucky, bonding the family to both places.

Dennis Blankenship served his country during World War II and upon his return, married Berneze Thomas from Scottsville, Allen County. Floyd married around five years later. By the 1950s, both had made the move to Indianapolis, an industrial center and the booming state capitol of Indiana. The city was also home to many automobile manufacturers, once rivaling Detroit, and attracted many rural southerners that were seeking for easier work, escaping the hard farm labor, and better living conditions. Among them were the Blankenships, who brought along their bluegrass music from their home states Kentucky and Tennessee, and by the late 1950s, Dennis and Floyd had formed a band known as the Blankenship Brothers, which also included fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and bass, though the exact line-up remains blurry.

The success of both the 45rpm format and rock'n'roll, which caused an upswing in private owned, independent record labels, also came to Indiana and in the middle of the decade, several local companies had been set up, turning out country music as well as rock'n'roll. The Blankenship Brothers' development and music style reflected both: in 1959, they started making their own records and several of their recordings featured elements of rock'n'roll, although they always retained a rural bluegrass chop.

To break into the record business, the brothers decided to work with the Starday record company from Texas, which had started a custom pressing service in the 1950s. They sent off two of their recordings, "Tears I Cried for You" and "Mary", which were pressed in May 1959 with a label the brothers had aptly requested to call Bluegrass Records. Later obituaries state that "Mary" made the national top 10, which is hard to believe and most likely a misunderstanding on the obituary's author's side. I couldn't find any hint to "Mary" being successful at all.

The Blankenship Brothers Band (feat. far right Russell Spears)
Photo from the German Dee-Jay Jamboree issue (1988)

Their first record had been pure bluegrass with banjo, fiddle, and haunting vocals, harking back to the ancient sounds of their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee. For their next release, Floyd and Dennis adapted a slightly more modern style, though they were far away from the sweet teenage sounds that dominated the charts. "Lonesome Old Jail", with a great electric lead guitar, searing fiddle, and some nice harmony singing, became one of the songs collectors loved years later. Coupled with the sweet "Too Late", it was released on Bluegrass late in 1959. On this release, their backing band was dubbed "The Sundown Playboys", which at one time included Russell Spears (who later in turn recorded for Indy based labels Yolk and Nabor) and Miles Ray Miller on electric guitar, who was a close friend of the Blankenships.

Their third Bluegrass release came in the summer of 1960, comprising "The Story (The World Will Never Know)" and "You Went and Broke My Heart". Again, the band featured an electric lead guitarist but both songs were rather traditional material. This was the brothers' last release produced through Starday under the Bluegrass imprint.

In 1960, the Blankenship Brothers decided it was time for their own label and established Skyline Records and their publishing firm, the Blankenship Brothers Music Company. Shortly after their last Bluegrass release, their first Skyline record came out, featuring "Easy to Love-Hard to Forget" backed by "Don't Tell Me Your Sorry". Another disc appeared later that year with "I Got Just One Heart" and "That's Why I Am Blue", the latter being another prime example of the rockabilly hick sound.

While those first two Skyline releases were more on the straight country side, it was their third and last disc on the label that again became an underground favorite some twenty years later. "Waiting for a Train", surprisingly not a Jimmie Rodgers cover but a Blankenship original, featured some solid electric guitar work, a thumping walking bass, and rhythmic acoustic guitar played probably by one of the brothers. The other side was occupied by "Hard Up Blues", another favorite, delivered in a similar manner. The disc came out later in 1960 and was possibly the Blankenships' final release altogether.

There appears to have been another record by a group called the "Blankenship Brothers & the Pontiacs" from May 1964 featuring "Heap Big Blues" and "Travelin'' on the Harron label (probably also a Starday custom press). However, it is not clear if these guys were also Dennis and Floyd Blankenship or another act of the same name. It's not mentioned in any discography apart from the Starday custom pressings listing in Nathan D. Gibson's book "The Starday Story".

Apart from their record chronology, the Blankenship Brothers' career is hazy and only sketchy documented. What venues they played or if they appeared on local radio remains as much a mystery as the musicians they performed with. It is probably worthy to note that the brothers' songs were all original compositions. Floyd Blankenship abandoned secular music in 1967 and became a reverend, founding the True Word Baptist Church around 1970. He was also the founder and leader of a gospel group known as the Kings Servant Quartet. He kept a day job for 38 years, working for Stokley Van Camp and retiring in 1989. While Floyd stayed in Indianapolis, Dennis eventually returned to Kentucky and made his home in Scottsville. Reportedly, he also became a minister.

In 1988 (or 1999, depending which source you believe), a local Indianapolis label called Blue Sky Records (the name being apparently a syncrisis of the Blankenships' labels Bluegrass and Skyline) issued a long-play album entitled "Bluegrass & Rockabilly Kings from Indiana", containing the brothers' twelve sides recorded for their labels. Though some of the information used for this post came from the liner notes of it, the anonymous author obviously knew even less about the brothers' lives than I do. The label bears the old Blankenship address on Spruce Street, though I doubt Dennis or Floyd got any knowledge of this LP as the liner notes are so hazy. This has been the only time the Blankenships' recorded works have been gathered in one place for re-release. Since the 1980s, some of their songs have found their way onto European rockabilly compilations.

Dennis Blankenship died on February 20, 2003, at the age of 79 years at a Scottsville nursing home. His brother Floyd passed away November 9, 2011, at the age of 82 years at Community Hospital East in Indianapolis. He is buried there at Orchard Hill Cemetery. Though much overlooked back then, the Blankenship Brothers are part of Indiana's rockabilly legacy and have presented the world with some of the most unique recordings ever made in that field.

Bluegrass 45-773: Blankenship Brothers - Tears I Cried for You / Mary (May 1959)
Bluegrass 45-816: Blankenship Brothers with the Sundown Playboys - Too Late / Lonesome Old Jail (November 1959)
Bluegrass 45-870: Blankenship Brother's - The Story (The World Will Never Know) / You Went and Broke My Heart (July 1960)
Skyline 45-105: Blankenship Brothers - Easy to Love - Hard to Forget / Don't Tell Me Your Sorry (1960)
Skyline 45-106: Blankenship Brothers - I Got Just One Heart / That's Why I Am Blue (1960)
Skyline 45-107: Blankenship Brothers - Waiting for a Train / Hard Up Blues (1960)
Harron 1073: Blankenship Brothers and the Pontiacs - Heap Big Blues / Travelin' (May 1964)

45cat entry
Rockin' Country Style entry
Indiana MusicPedia entry
• Discogs
• Liner Notes from Blue Sky LP 100 on bopping.org (Internet Archive)
Floyd Blankenship Find a Grave entry
Dennis Blankenship Find a Grave entry
Bluegrass Records entries and Blankenship Brothers entries at Malcolm Chapman's Starday Custom Series blog
WJLS photostream on Flickr
• Nathan D. Gibson, Don Pierce: "The Starday Story - The House That Country Music Built" (University Press of Mississippi), 2011, page 237
• Thanks to Mike Martin

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